Joe Biden in Danger of Humiliating Loss in Iowa, Top Democrats Warn

Tyler Pager

(Bloomberg) -- Joe Biden risks a humiliating third- or fourth-place finish in Iowa early next year, according to nearly a dozen senior Democrats in the state who attribute the prospect to what they see as a poorly organized operation that has failed to engage with voters and party leaders.

With fewer than 100 days until the Feb. 3 caucuses, Biden is failing to spend the time with small groups of voters and party officials that Iowans expect and his campaign’s outreach has been largely ineffective, according to 11 senior Democrats in the state. That could send Biden to a crippling loss behind Elizabeth Warren and Pete Buttigieg, who have highly organized campaigns in Iowa, said the Democrats, most of whom requested anonymity to speak candidly about the campaign.

Biden didn’t join the 2020 presidential race until April, months after his rivals had set up camp and secured the most sought-after hires. He entered as the front-runner, a position that has slowly eroded as Warren’s and Buttigieg’s standings have risen. Recent polls have Warren tied with Biden, and one survey shows Buttigieg in third place in the state.

Even though Biden told reporters in Iowa last week that he was “working like hell” to win, Democrats there say he has a lot of ground to make up.

“I think it’s fair to say if action isn’t taken soon, you’re going to find that a person who was 7 or 14 points behind Biden will be breathing down his neck or actually ahead of him,” said Kurt Meyer, chairman of the Mitchell County Democratic Party. “There’s still time because the caucuses are not on Oct. 27, but action needs to be taken.”

A defeat in Iowa wouldn’t end the Biden campaign. He is heavily favored in South Carolina, the fourth contest of the nominating season, but it would slice into his chief argument -- that he’s best suited to beat President Donald Trump.

The Biden campaign said it is confident in the strength of its Iowa operation, issuing a statement to Bloomberg News saying Biden has about 70 endorsements, with dozens more forthcoming. It also said that surrogates such as his wife, Jill, and Iowa officials have campaigned strongly on the candidate’s behalf.

“This is really early in the process as you know and most observers know the Iowans take a long time making up their mind and so I feel good about Iowa,” Biden told MSNBC on Tuesday. “I feel good about what’s going on. I think we have all we need to conduct a really successful campaign in all four early states and so I’m feeling good about it. “

Nevertheless, Biden’s reliance on high-dollar fundraisers has taken away time from campaigning in a state where voters expect to meet candidates face-to-face in the months and weeks before they gather in dozens of homes and community centers to pick their preference for the nominee.

In September, for example, Biden crisscrossed the country appearing at private fundraising events -- capped by 10 in one week -- and spent only three days in Iowa. He still ended up with less money than candidates like Warren, Buttigieg and Bernie Sanders.

Many of the Democrats interviewed pointed to his Iowa state director, Jake Braun, who doesn’t live there full-time and hasn’t worked on a campaign in the Hawkeye State since 2007. The Democrats cite Braun in trying to explain the weakness of the campaign’s outreach to key officials. They also complained that it can be difficult to get in touch with and work with the Biden team.

The Biden campaign pushed back Tuesday, claiming that Braun did work for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, a fund-raising arm for U.S. House races, in Iowa in 2018.

Braun, reached by phone for comment on Monday, declined to say where he lived and hung up. On Tuesday, he wrote to Bloomberg News saying he is in Iowa “5-6 days a week and have consistently since I joined this campaign in May.”

A senior Biden adviser told reporters in September that Iowa was not a must-win state, pointing to the former vice president’s strength nationally and in all of the early primary states. But in his last presidential race, in 2008, Iowa was his downfall after he finished fifth.

The problems and staff missteps in Iowa have also cost Biden the early endorsement of State Senator Tony Bisignano, who backed him in his earlier presidential forays. He endorsed him for the 2020 race, but the campaign never acknowledged it. Bisignano said he was left off the invitation list to a handful of Biden events in the Des Moines area, which irritated him because that’s the part of the state he represents.

“If my endorsement is worth anything and if our friendship of 32 years had meant anything, I would think I would have the opportunity to talk to the vice president,” Bisignano said. “I understand some of the issues Iowans are talking about, and no one has really asked me for any input.”

He added, “I’m just not reassured that the staff has been making the best decisions of his time and on issues in Iowa.”

Biden still leads or is statistically tied in Iowa state polls, and he will return to the state for four days of campaigning this week.

The size of Biden’s operation in the state is on a par with his chief rivals. He has 22 offices and about 100 staff on the ground. Buttigieg has 21 field offices and more than 100 staff, and expects to have 130 people there by this week. Warren’s campaign has 19 field offices and more than 100 people.

Another warning sign for Biden in Iowa is that Warren and Buttigieg were the top second choices for caucus-goers in the latest USA Today/Suffolk poll. In the caucuses, candidates who do not reach a 15% threshold are not considered viable in that precinct and their supporters move to a different candidate who has reached the threshold.

When Biden does campaign in the state, he has often skipped the community centers, school-based town halls and the visits to diners that Iowans prize so much. Instead, he has tried to project the aura of the Oval Office by delivering speeches from a TelePrompter without taking questions. That has the benefit of helping him avoid the verbal gaffes that hurt his campaign over the summer, but it has made the famously friendly politician seem aloof.

Keith Porter, the president of a foreign policy think tank in Muscatine, said he was surprised by the lack of communication from Biden’s team in the state. Porter, who attended a Biden event in Muscatine last Wednesday, said he was leaning toward Warren but has also been pleasantly surprised by Buttigieg.

“He is putting his front-runner status at risk by taking Iowa for granted by not being here enough, by not doing the grassroots kind of organizing,” Porter, 54, said of Biden. “I’m getting text messages from the Marianne Williamson campaign. I’m getting door knocked by Elizabeth Warren and others. I can’t recall anything from Joe Biden.”

Nevertheless, Biden still has his share of committed caucus-goers, some of whom waited more than two hours for him last Wednesday in West Point, Iowa, after he changed his schedule to give a speech in his hometown of Scranton, Pennsylvania.

“I loved him,” John Dearing, a 72-year-old retired teacher, said after Biden spoke in West Point. “He sounded so sincere. I do believe he’s saying what he believes.”

(Updates with Biden comment in eighth paragraph.)

--With assistance from Jennifer Jacobs.

To contact the reporter on this story: Tyler Pager in West Point, Iowa at tpager1@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Wendy Benjaminson at wbenjaminson@bloomberg.net, Joshua Gallu

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